9/11: Shaping a Lifetime of Service

By CNCS Staff

Brenden Butler pauses for a photo while serving on a service project in New Orleans.

AmeriCorps alum’s experience helping 9/11 survivors inspires lifelong service commitment

AmeriCorps alumnus Brenden Butler was almost 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero, but he never would have imagined how the 9/11 tragedy would still impact him today.

An Oregon native, growing up outside of Salem and living in Portland, Butler remembers like many Americans where he was when the tragedy unfolded. 

“I was just waking up in Portland and remember hearing in the bedroom my friend’s girlfriend saying,

“We’re under attack.” I turned on the TV and was shocked and speechless. We started to walk toward downtown and I remember eerily not seeing one airplane in the sky – it was a silence that I would forever remember.”

A recent college grad, he was always interested in joining AmeriCorps and was in the process of applying when September 11 happened. He received an offer to become an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Central Maryland Red Cross with the knowledge that he would be immediately trained and sent to work near Ground Zero.

“I never thought I would be in the middle of it all, helping the family members of the victims.”

Brenden Butler'My time with AmeriCorps and the 9/11 experience made me commit a lifetime of service. The experience impacted my world view and how it defined what it is to be an American.' 

After he was trained in Baltimore, Butler was dispatched for more than a month to work in Edison, NJ, a commuter suburb where many residents worked at the World Trade Center. He was charged with being a family outreach specialist with the American Red Cross, where he would go with a team to conduct home visits to support family members of the victims. 

“I was going to these homes every day and sitting down with family members of those who perished, providing them with any support they needed. Whether it was just providing emotional support or financial resources to help pay a mortgage bill, I did whatever I could to help these families.” 

Many of those who received assistance from AmeriCorps members were mostly women – wives, mothers, daughters, and fiancées of those who died on September 11. 

“A lot of these women were constantly getting bombarded with the tragedy and sorrow. They were so paralyzed with grief that they couldn’t even think about bills. We took the time to go through their mail and organized their bills to help them alleviate any burdens during this most difficult time.” 

One Italian woman relied on her son for income, who was a construction worker working on Tower 1 when the first plane hit. Another woman had been busy planning her wedding when she didn’t realize the last time she would hear her fiancée was through a voicemail. Butler dealt every day with a heavy heart and the weight of the tragedy through the stories of the loved ones.

“American Red Cross offered mental health professionals for volunteers to decompress the weight of the situation. The amount of life lost was something the American Red Cross never dealt with before and their trainings couldn’t prepare us for something as grave as this.”

Butler’s time near Ground Zero and his work with AmeriCorps inspired him to make a lifetime of service and make a career out of it.

He returned to the Central Maryland American Red Cross and served the rest of his service term in Baltimore, where he developed a fire prevention and escape program for children 6 and under in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.

From there, he studied national service and volunteering in graduate school and worked for HandsOn Portland.  He continues to work with nonprofits today, as a coach and guide helping them carry out events to meet their goals.

“My time with AmeriCorps and the 9/11 experience made me commit a lifetime of service. The experience impacted my world view and how it defined what it is to be an American.” 

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